Geology & Geography Faculty Work


When Participation Meets Empowerment: The WWF and the Politics of Invitation in the Chimalapas, Mexico

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Annals of the Association of American Geographers

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Emerging out of radical theories about the uneven nature of power and underwriting practices that assist marginalized peoples in constructing their own development strategies, “participation” has recently come under fire for being co-opted and mainstreamed by governmental and nongovernmental agencies, part of a new development “tyranny” that betrays the concept's populist roots. The issues surrounding participation are nowhere more hotly debated than in the area of conservation, where the requirements of ecological sustainability often collide with the demands of indigenous people seeking to control their own natural resources. As we show in this article, the issues become even more complex when the ideals and practices of participation circulating within a nongovernmental organization (NGO) are met by indigenous forms of empowerment, based not only on the resources of a remote and biologically diverse forest, but also on a pool of knowledge about development discourses themselves, including those of participation. Our case study examines interactions between an affiliate of the World Wildlife Fund operating out of Oaxaca, a state capital in southern Mexico, and a group of indigenous Zoque-speakers living in that state's Chimalapas forest. We interpret the collision between the NGO's “participation” and the Zoques' “empowerment” by employing “progressive contextualization,” an approach that leads us to identify and analyze the wider sets of conditions underpinning the encounter. We find that the Zoques invert a generic and aspatial politics of participation by insisting on a territorially-based, and thus intensely spatial, “politics of invitation” as they negotiate the complexities of participation within contemporary development.



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